Anyone can do anything with appropriate dedication. I seek to impart this belief to all of the university students I teach. And, for the most part, I believe it. Of course, someone who is six foot five and wiry is more likely to take to basketball than a person who is five foot one and plump. But a diminutive and rotund player can achieve proficiency with sufficient time and dedication. In fact, I count myself as an exemplification of this belief. I had an ordinary background and I am of average intelligence but managed eventually to get a PhD. and publish an academic book—not because I am a genius but just because I worked hard, listened to criticism and didn’t give up. However, my belief in application over ability is being challenged by my relative failure to learn much Japanese, despite having lived in the country for over six years.

Japanese is a notoriously tricky language for native English-speakers to acquire. According to the U. S. Foreign Service Institute, it takes the average English-speaking student around two thousand two hundred quality study hours to achieve general proficiency or higher in Japanese. Think about that for a moment. This means that, if you manage to find two hours of quality study time every day (quality meaning engaged and active, not exhaustedly passing your eyes over a grammar book after a hard day’s work) Japanese would take you over three years. This is compared with just under six hundred hours for similar competence French or around seven hundred and fifty for German. [1] In the same time it takes to learn Japanese, you could learn French, German and Spanish—and still have lots of time left over to polish your Italian.

Japanese can be difficult for many different reasons. Japanese has a relatively large vocabulary: according to a survey by the National Institute for Japanese Language, ninety per cent of Japanese magazines are constructed from a pool of ten thousand words, compared with the three thousand words used in comparable publications in English and Spanish. [2] Japanese also uses four different writing systems – kanji (adopted Chinese characters), hiragana (phonetic lettering), katakana (phonetic lettering used for words that did not originate in Japan) and rōmaji (the Latin alphabet). Although the frequent use of English words in Latin script is handy for English speakers, they are more than counterbalanced by the two and a half thousand kanji a student must be able to recall in order to be able to read a broadsheet newspaper. Admittedly, spoken Japanese is relatively easy to pronounce and the grammar very logical with few exceptions. However, one could argue that spoken Japanese effectively is four languages, depending on the level of formality required. Completely different words and phrases are needed depending on whether the person you are address is perceived as your subordinate, equal, superior or someone ever higher.

Interestingly, Japanese people seem to find learning English just as challenging as native English speakers find Japanese, but for different reasons. Firstly, there are a huge number of grammatical exceptions in English and English spelling is complex and counter-intuitive. Secondly, certain word sounds (such as the difference between ‘r’ and ‘l’) have no equivalence in Japanese, meaning that Japanese learners not only have difficulty in distinguishing them but actually have to develop new muscles to be able to say them. Thirdly, the katakana alphabet system that typically is used to represent English loan words distorts the pronunciation of words, meaning that Japanese English-speakers with a relatively good understanding of English often struggle to make themselves understood due to their pronunciation. Moreover, once a Japanese student has achieved general competence they then have to begin to wrestle with the many varieties of different forms of English spoken across the world.

As well as the intrinsic challenges posed by one another’s languages, there are environmental and historical reasons as to why Japanese people find it difficult to learn English and vice versa. In the case of the Japanese, the English that students learn at high school tends to be geared towards success at the written exams that allow entry into prestigious universities, rather than practical competence. In addition, it has proven possible for Japan to become a rich, successful country without a majority of the population speaking English, thus encouraging the belief that language learning is not strictly necessary to future success. On the other hand, for English speakers living in Japan but seeking to acquire Japanese, the extent to which Japan itself is extremely accommodating to non-Japanese speakers can prove an obstacle to improvement in the language. Not only are signs and menus in English, but if you ask a Japanese person a question they are likely to reply in English. Given that advanced English skills are comparatively rare and valuable, Japanese people often appear more eager for you to display your talents in your native tongue rather than attempt to struggle with theirs.

In my own case, I would say that my difficulties with Japanese are due partly to time limitations and ineptitude and partly due to latent arrogance. When I arrived, I was a dedicated student for around two years, but I began to neglect the language as my job became increasingly busy. I want to speak Japanese but I also want to do other things—write another book, pen more scholarly articles, be a better teacher and scholar, learn about Japanese culture—and life is finite. At the same time, I find Japanese frustrating because the skills I have acquired over my lifetime are largely irrelevant. Learning Japanese reminds me of how arduous it was working out how to read and write words for the first time as a child. At my most grandiose, I think of Japanese as a perilous psychological threshold, that requires me in some sense to cut the roots that connect me to my home culture, abandoning the safety of my adult identity. Although I doubt I will achieve such a profound transition, I am going to give Japanese another go in the belief that graft and dedication can again outweigh ineptitude. As the playwright Samuel Beckett once wrote “Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”